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Franz Liszt (1811-1886) was undoubtedly a towering giant among the pianist-composers of the nineteenth century, but the significance of his late piano pieces has been the subject of much debate.
On the one hand these works are considered heralds of the elderly Liszt’s waning inspiration; on the other, they are often praised as visionary pieces, stark in their radical simplicity, bold in their chromaticism and opaque relationship to the highly evolved tonal system of their time.
Dusting off some of these most remarkable compositions, a new edition by Michael Kube has recently been published by Bärenreiter, which deserves investigation by players, teachers and academics alike…
In his particularly in-depth eight-page Preface to this new publication, Michael Kube tells us,
“Many of Liszt’s late piano pieces are as astonishing today as they were in their time. Due to their indefinable harmony and their independence from all traditional forms and conventions of expression they may appear like solitary forebears of musical modernity. Yet for Liszt they were rather an expression of his frail constitution, both physically and mentally, particularly in the aftermath of a fall down the stairs in his Weimar residence in June 1881.”
Those who associate Liszt with virtuosic excess will be intrigued to discover that these pieces rarely reference the technical bravura of the composer’s earlier work, instead probing deep into exploratory compositional language.
Indeed, an early advanced player (at around UK Grade 7) could play some of the works in this unassuming volume, although the music requires that any player approach each piece with maturity, and in a spirit of enquiry.
Kube collates the following collection of these intimate miniatures, most of which seem little more than sketches, yet prove perfectly formed in their expression:
- Romance oubliée (two versions)
- Wiegenlied (Chant du berceau) S198
- Unstern! (Sinistre) S208
- Die Trauer-Gondel (Le lugubre gondola) S200
- R.W. – Venezia S201
- Am Grabe Richard Wagners S202
- Frage und Antwort. Nocturne
- Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort. Nocturne S203
- Trübe Wolken (Nuages gris) S199
- En rêve. Nocturne S207
Liszt’s contemporaries were perplexed by the aesthetic of these pieces; Kube quotes manuscript collector August Göllerich, who noted in his memoirs,
“Under the impression of Richard Wagner’s death Liszt wrote a series of strangely intimate works in the years 1883 and 1884, personal ‘greetings from the mind‘, the escapism of which forbids their public disclosure.”
It is fair to say that Liszt speaks with a confidential hush in all the music collected here, and none of these works seems a likely candidate for concert performance. Rather, this is music to explore and delve into as a personal, dare I say spiritual quest.
The Bärenreiter publication
The publishers present this music in the usual, luxury style of all their urtext editions, Liszt’s coded colour within their kaleidoscope being blue:
Kube’s Preface includes detailed background information and anecdote for each piece in turn, delivering a wealth of genuinely interesting and often moving context. This is followed by an equally helpful Notes on Performance essay, written by the pianist Steffen Schleiermacher, who likewise tackles each of the pieces in specific detail.
The eleven scores occupy a mere 33 pages, illustrating the concision of Liszt’s writing. The clarity, spaciousness (and lack of editorial fingering suggestions, true to Bärenreiter form) seems to further underline the sparse gestures of Liszt’s musical language in this late period:
In putting together this edition, Kube consulted previously neglected sources, and the concluding five-page Critical Commentary addresses alternative readings and editorial decisions in considerable detail.
Bärenreiter have delivered a scholarly edition of this astonishing music which is long overdue, and they have done so with typical panache.
Some readers will have encountered a couple of the pieces nestling in the well-thumbed (and still essential) Twenty-one Short Piano Pieces volume from ABRSM (available here); for those who have begun to explore Liszt’s more technically accessible music in that collection, this is surely a superb sequel that offers deeper insight into Liszt’s final utterances at the piano.
For those wanting to discover this music on record, the recent disc by Cédric Tiberghien from Hyperion (available here) has my strong recommendation. There are certainly elements of this music which will seem so strange to newcomers that they are best discovered through listening in the first instance. Having this score to hand will deepen that experience.
For those who are already acquainted with Liszt’s music, and are intrigued to discover some of his most profoundly personal works, this volume is quite simply indispensable.
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